Integrated Online System For Civil Claims
Sir Geoffrey Vos, who has recently been appointed as the Head of Civil Justice in England and Wales, has set out his vision for the future resolution of civil claims which will be welcomed by businesses and consumers alike.
He intends to commence “a fundamental generational reform of the civil justice system” in which all claims will begin online before entering a digital court process.
“Ultimate Vision” For Civil Justice
Speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Law Society on 28 January, Sir Geoffrey Vos said that an efficient dispute resolution system can be the difference between solvency and insolvency for thousands of businesses, particularly SMEs, and consumers. Future generations “will not accept a slow, paper-based and court-house centric justice system. If that is all that is available, the new generations will look for other means of dispute resolution. For that reason, the use of technology by the courts is not optional, it is inevitable and essential”.
His vision is that all claimants will start their claims online, creating a “single transferable data set” that would be directed, according to the type of claim, to the appropriate online dispute resolution process, whether that is mediation, arbitration, an ombudsman or the courts. This would allow “vindication of their legal rights either within the online space or, for the most intractable cases that are not resolved by mediated interventions, by the most efficient possible judicial resolution process”.
An integrated online system would be able to resolve “many more cases” without the need for physical attendance at a court. There are two essential components:
- The creation of a single data set in respect of each dispute that can be passed through the system until resolution occurs. This will enable the courts to collect far more extensive data on the numbers and categories of claims, how long they take to resolve, the effect that mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) have on the process and whether there are any regional differences. The courts can then respond more quickly to the numbers and types of claims that the economy needs to be resolved.
- Processes of continuous ADR being built into the system. At the moment, ADR initiatives are patchy and often hindered by the ability to opt out or the failure of one or other party to opt in. Every dispute has a sweet spot at which it is most susceptible to resolution. The programmes can themselves learn to detect when that occurs in a particular type of case and then offer the mediated intervention that is most likely to be effective. This will change the expectations of business and consumers who will come to expect early and economical resolution, rather than everything being directed at a process which ends in a trial. ADR may even become compulsory in some cases.
The civil courts have been undergoing reform for a number of years as part of an ambitious £1bn court modernisation process. Several online systems, portals and pilot schemes have already been implemented, partially implemented, or are pending for particular types of claims but full digitisation has yet to be achieved.
Before COVID-19, around 2 million County Court claims and 20,000 Business and Property Court claims were issued annually. In March 2020, the Business and Property Courts adapted swiftly to the pandemic remaining open and conducting 85% of national and international business disputes remotely. However, a backlog arose in the County Court due to the greater volume of lower value claims, more litigants without legal representation, and a lack of digitisation. Developing existing and new online systems for particular types of civil claims and integrating those systems will therefore have obvious benefits for businesses, consumers, and the wider economy, although such large-scale reform may take a number of years to come to fruition.
Other reforms in the Business and Property Courts, including a pilot scheme for the disclosure of documents, and changes to witness statements which are expected to come into force in April 2021, also underline the judiciary’s determination to modernise the civil justice system to make it more attractive to business litigants.